Musings of Navigating The Finite remainder of life from Porchville, with the hope of a glimpse of The Infinite

Friday, December 28, 2012

Book Review: Vagina, A Cultural History by Naomi Wolf

Vagina: A New BiographyVagina: A New Biography by Naomi Wolf
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed Naomi Wolf’s new book, Vagina: A New Biography.  Of course I would, I am a heterosexual, male, monogamist and a first class flake, so I was like a kitten with a bowl of warm milk.  It puts me in mind of that song from The Sound of Music, These Are A Few of My Favorite Things.  In a way, I wish some one else beside Wolf had wrote the book, then I would not be forced to acknowledge that much of the world thinks this is a silly book and most of the people who think that are women.

I really like the idea that a woman’s vagina and brain are one.  We men have been accused of thinking with our little heads for centuries, so it refreshing to see a feminist make such a claim for women and their vaginas.  I also like the idea that my wife is a goddess and her yoni is sacred and by appealing to her goddess array and engaging in deeply penetrative coitus I can send her galloping off on a magical unicorn of orgasm across a technicolor rainbow of pheromones from my arm pits and a love potion number 9 of feel good hormones and neurotransmitters absorbed from my semen.  This is all good stuff and I loved reading about it, and yes I am exaggerating, but only slightly, what Wolf has said in the book.  

But I can also understand where many women may not quite like the idea that their thinking is so strongly colored by their vaginas or that they need a man to help them see in technicolor.  I also think the Wolf is getting worked over with some past due karmic debts from some feminists...I saw numerous references to Julian Assange in many negative reviews.  While I consider myself a pro-feminist supporter, I am in no way familiar with the nuances and politics within the movement, but I definitely get the feeling that Wolf has stepped on a few toes in the past and her book is something of a pair of combat boots in a ballet.

Much of what I read in Vagina, I already knew, I have an interest in sex like some people have in astronomy.  However there was for me one piece of valuable information that I never realized before  The female pelvic innervation is not only far more complex than I understood, but also subject to a lot of variation from woman to woman.  This explains the mystery of vaginal orgasms verses clitoral orgasms.  As I have long suspected Freud’s claims of a woman’s maturity determining the type of orgasm she experiences is bullshit.  If a woman lacks the nerve connections for deep vaginal orgasms then she will experience clitoral orgasm--maturity has nothing to do with it.  For me this was worth the price of the book.  Another fascinating bit of knowledge for me was that, although I knew nipple stimulation causes oxytocin to be released, I did not know that nipple stimulation is actually used in natural child birth procedures to initiate labor contractions.  It amazes me that nipple stimulation would have this kind of power.  Wolf provides some cautions that a woman may want to be choosy about whom she gives access to her bra (especially near the end of her pregnancy).  Oxytocin is a bonding hormone.  Helen Fisher has offered much the same advice regarding with whom one sleeps.

Some of the reviews I read took Wolf to task regarding the quality of her research.  I suppose one could ask to what standard does one hold such a book?  It is what I would consider a popularization, not a scientific document.  She provides extensive footnotes and to be honest I saw very little that would give me pause, although bear in mind, I am a hobbyist, not an expert.  She did rely a good bit on anecdotal evidence but I also believe that she adequately identified what was valid research and what was anecdotal.

That said, there was one area of concern for me regarding research that cast a wider shadow on the entire enterprise.  She quotes Marnia Robinson in several places and calls her a “dopamine researcher”.  Marnia Robinson is an author not a scientist.  She promotes a type of non-orgasmic sex called karezza, and in my opinion gets a bit hysterical about orgasms.  Yes, I am not a fan of Robinson, although I think she means well.  What Wolf quoted about dopamine was not out of context, but still quoting Robinson in an extremely pro-orgasmic book struck me like having Rush Limbaugh deliver the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention.  Robinson, the last I knew, was not about to say anything good about an orgasm, so her appearance in Wolf’s book was a bit curious and would suggest a hurried effort at research.  I did a quick internet search and found nothing from Robinson refuting Wolf’s book.  It sort of struck me that a pissing contest is being avoided.  Although I will emphasize, it was a quick search.

Another area of concern, I think Wolf seemed to go a bit overboard with her reactions to negative references to the vagina.  I agree entirely that women should not be subjected to obscene language and that men should not only refrain from using such terms, but to not think of women in such terms.  However as we all know such terminology exists and is widely used by the Neanderthals among us.  So how does one handle it?  During my working life, I had been called various things of the four lettered persuasions some involving maternal sex and fellatio. (the first technically true, the latter not).    If I were to take such things to heart I would have had to quit working at a very tender age.  So I regarded Wolf’s claim of six months of writer’s blocks over an ignorant reference to pasta vulvas a bit over the top.  It brought to mind something my mother said about the histrionics my cousin inflicted on the world when she was in high school.  “A good six inches of hard manhood delivered fast and furiously would straighten that girl right out.”  Hmmm, what to do?  Naomi was already having technicolored orgasms with her man so what the hell does one do now regarding such histrionics?   Unfortunately my late mother is no longer available for comment.  I will say though that Wolf’s point should be taken and understood by men.  This woman is the love of your life, don’t treat her or her vagina with disrespect and expect her to fly off to Oz in your arms.  If men spent as much time polishing their relationships with the women they love, as polishing the fenders of their Dodge Ram pickups, the world would be a far better place.

Like I say, I immensely enjoyed this book and found myself in agreement with most of what she said.  I do think that Wolf tended to overstate her case.  Does the vagina affect a woman’s thoughts and is it affected by thoughts?  I think so.  I believe that there is a definite brain-genital connection in both women and men just like there is a definite brain-gut connection.   Ever get butterflies in your stomach before giving a speech?  Has a dose of intestinal flu affected your thoughts?  Does this mean that women are incapable of being a CEO because their vaginas might take offense to a certain product line or corporate deal?  Absolutely not.

Can women experience the world in technicolor after having the right type of orgasm?  Well let me put it to you this way, my own orgasms are paltry affairs...putt, putt, putt and I am done.  Yeah it feels good but I can’t say that I am particularly changed by the event.  But when my wife has an orgasm she flies off and circles the rings Saturn, and she carries me along with her.  I see technicolor after one of my wife’s orgasms, so if it affects me like that I can only guess what it does for her!   So no I don’t think Wolf is exaggerating.  I am being entirely honest here, my wife’s orgasms are far more enjoyable for me than mine are.  So yep, I think a woman can ride down the yellow brick road on the back of a magical unicorn named Orgasm and head off to Oz, while pink and purple stardust emanates from her yoni that will take her man to the far reaches of the finite universe and give him a glimpse of the Infinite.

Are women goddesses? Indeed, but it is that flakey part of me that has been off to Oz with my wife that believes that.  I have to admit, I would have been happier if Wolf could have found some less moonbeamish language to describe this phenomenon. But I also have to admit having been there with my wife...she is indeed a goddess.  So is this a silly book?  Not for me, I have experienced some of the things that Wolf claims.    

Human beings have a remarkable capacity for intellect.  However, we are the total sums of our evolution.   Our intellect has been created in an evolutionary blink of the eye compared to our sexuality.  When we try to intellectualize our sexuality we run into some powerful forces.  I think what Wolf was getting in this book was that we are still subject to the animal forces of our genes and we ignore them at our peril.

Here are two reviews that sum up the problems and the strengths of the book:

Huffington Post, “Naomi Wolf's 'Vagina' Gets More Public Criticism And Faint Praise Than Any Vagina We Know Of”, by Nina Bahadur

Huffington Post, “Who's Afraid of the Vagina-Brain Connection?” by James G. Pfaus

View all my reviews

Note: the Kindle edition seems to have a slightly different title (A Cultural History) than the hardback (A New Biography).  

EDIT 1-4-2013:  Re-reading this review with a little passage of time I realized I forgot to mention that another thing that I really liked about this book was the chapter on how to appeal to a woman's "goddess array." Chapter 14 Radical Pleasure, Radical Awakening: The Vagina as a Liberator. Again I find the moonbeam terminology unfortunate, but the pearls of wisdom she provides should be a mandatory class in high school for all males with refresher courses offered periodically. In essence the chapter states don't take your woman for granted, treat her like you did when you were trying to impress her, respect her, help her and love her. All seems to be common sense, yet look at how many men treat their wives like an appliance, a dinner machine and a sex machine. We can do better guys, and Wolf tells you how in one chapter. Yeah, be a wussie and buy her flowers and take her to dinner. Gaze in her eyes, spend time with her, touch her and treat her like you love her and hang on to your hat the next time you jump into bed. Ladies, if you have a inattentive partner, cast pearls before swine. Make him read chapter 14. 

The other thing I like about this chapter was that she went into a bit of the bio-chemistry of sex. We try to rationalize sex with our advanced cerebral cortex, but sex operates at far deeper and older sections of our minds. Why are condoms so unsatisfying for an committed long term monogamous relationship? Could it be that by using a condom, the biochemical communications is blocked, the only part of our brains that realize that we had sex is on cerebral cortex? The older, down in the swamp sections, of our brains saw no chemical messages absorbed by the genitals from the partner, so was there any sex? If you are in love and you are monogamous with absolute fidelity, in my mind condoms are destructive to your relationship. (Note the strong emphasis on monogamous fidelity--you are a complete idiot to not use condoms and dental dams in a non-monogamous relationships). Wolf hints at some of this complexity in this chapter but she only speaks in terms of female receptivity to male chemistry. I think it is very much a two way street, males are chemically receptive to female chemistry and genitally and orally absorb female biochemistry from vaginal fluids. In my mind this is the real communication during sex, and the reason that I fly off to Oz with my wife's orgasms.  Loving monogamous couples should not block it with a layer of latex. I also think it is good reason for men to take their time and stick around. No need to hurry off. You can only absorb this good stuff when you are in contact with it. The biochemical communication during sex and its impact on love is an area that I think requires a lot more research. Wolf gives it honorable mention, but I think as a society we know very little. Sex is a chemical wonder. It is the attractant that get us together, the adhesive the holds us together, and the oil that lubricates a good working relationship or marriage. Don't we as a society owe it to ourselves and our children to understand this process as much as possible?


  1. I have been interested on your thoughts of this book for a while - your comments on Goodreads - so was very interested to read your review here. This is not a book I would have picked up however it does sound like an interesting read.

    1. Daystarz,

      I must confess that I started to read this book and was completely put off by the huge quantity of negative reviews of it. I ended up putting it down. I then came to the realization, that I was allowing myself to be manipulated by those reviews. What the hell I already owned the book, so what could I lose by reading it? I definitely think that Wolf is being taken to task for past sins. Fine, but that has nothing to do with the content of this book. So i read it, and to be honest, yes, I think her research could stand a bit of polish but I also think that she was being very brave and honest in most of her discussion.

      While I am being honest, I was actually afraid to write the review. I don't want to have to dodge rotten tomatoes.

      Daystars, thanks for stopping by and commenting.

  2. I have not read the book, but I appreciate a great orgasm as much as the next goddess. I like your concluding paragraph enough to give myself permission not to read the book.

    1. Olga

      Being a true goddess with an appreciation based on firm empiricism, such a theoretical treatise would be of little value to you. Words can do no justice. The value of this book is for non-goddess half of the population who witness these flights in pure amazement.

      As always, an honor, thanks for visiting and commenting.